Hansen's Sunday Notebook: Fearless Cats still the big boys on Pac-12 basketball block

December 01, 2013 12:00 am  • 

In the post-Thanksgiving weekend edition of Greg Hansen's Sunday Notebook, the columnist opines on Arizona's long and proper tradition of going after college basketball's biggest names early in the season, how Cameron Denson stacks up (well) against other great Lancers, a pair of UA commits who played in the Division II title game, former Cats meeting in the NBA's D-League, a shakeup at Tucson City Golf and Dennis Bene getting his state title and doing it right along the way.

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  • At the foundation of Arizona’s $25-million-a-year basketball operation is a four-game series against Duke, 1987-1991. Those four games put the Wildcats on the map more than anything else.

    The opportunity to play the Blue Devils is almost as important as beating them.

    In the quarter-century since that first game, won 91-85 by Arizona at McKale Center, the Wildcats and Duke have played eight times. Incredibly, Arizona is 5-3.

    Only UCLA, which has played the Blue Devils nine times in the same stretch, going 2-7, plays on the same stage. Duke has played true road games at McKale and at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion and at no other Pac-12 venue.

    Against the rest of the Pac-12, Duke has played 10 games in that 25-year stretch. It is 9-1, losing only to No. 1 Stanford in 2001.

    The trick is to get to play Duke. It has more cachet than playing Notre Dame in football, because the Fighting Irish are no longer consistently powerful, and they are not coached by a legend like Mike Krzyzewski.

    Beating the Blue Devils hasn’t ensured immediate future success at Arizona. Three days after that maiden victory in 1987, unbeaten and ranked No. 1, Arizona lost at New Mexico.

    Six days after beating Duke in a wild double-overtime game in 1991, Arizona lost at Mac Court to a 12-13 Oregon team.

    But that’s not the point. Getting on the radar is what matters.

    Lute Olson’s and now Sean Miller’s willingness to take on all comers isn’t a widely shared concept in the Pac-12. The December list of nonconference games in the league is head-shakingly weak.

    Arizona State, which hopes to showcase potential All-America guard Jahii Carson now goes into an off-the-grid slumber against Grambling, Miami, Texas Tech and UC-Irvine. The best No. 14 Oregon can do is play BYU.

    Only UCLA, which plays Duke in Madison Square Garden on Dec. 19, and Colorado, which appears to be fearless, arranging games against Kansas and Oklahoma State this month, are willing to punch it out with the big boys.

  • State champion Salpointe Catholic has so many good football players, all-city type performers such as Jake CasteelJay WilliamsAustin WeaverTaylor Powell and Brandt Davidson, that it is sometimes awkward to give so much attention to receiver/returner/cornerback Cameron Denson.

    But there’s no question Denson is the difference-maker, a potential shutdown cornerback in the Pac-12, or a game-changing receiver, however Rich Rodriguez plans to utilize the 6-foot-1-inch, 180-pound UA commit.

    After scoring on an 84-yard kickoff return and a 98-yard reception in Friday’s convincing 46-20 state title victory over Scottsdale Chaparral, Denson came off as modest, anything but it’s-all-about-me.

    “I don’t know the stats, but I had three touchdowns and we won,” he posted on his Twitter account later that night.

    Over the last 50 years, Tucson’s leading prep receivers have been Sahuaro’s John Mistler, Sunnyside’s Jon Horton, Santa Rita’s Eric Drage, Sabino’s Brian Poli-Dixon and Sahuaro’s Steve Martin. Denson has more speed and elusiveness than any of them.

    Late Friday night, Salpointe coach Dennis Bene said that Denson could lead Arizona “to the Rose Bowl,” which is a bit ambitious, but also reflects how much the coach thinks of his triple-threat player.

    Remember this: A year ago, Denson, playing quarterback because of injury, rushed for 1,026 yards and passed/caught 991 more. This year he caught passes for 1,453 yards and scored 32 touchdowns.

    Over the years, the Lancers have produced a handful of the top athletes in Tucson history: Olympic softball player Tairia (Mims) Flowers, Olympic swimmer Colleen Lanne, major-league ballplayers Ed Vosberg and Mark Carreon and soccer All-American Kelly (Walbert) Cagle.

    Add Cameron Denson to that list.

  • Deep ties: Immediately after Friday’s Salpointe Catholic-Chaparral state championship game, Chaparral assistant coach David Wood embraced Julius Holt at midfield. The defensive line teammates at Arizona, 1981 and 1982, watched from opposite sides as their sons played important roles Friday. Justin Holt, a sophomore tackle and center, played both ways for Salpointe, and was a key stopper on a goal-line stand that changed momentum in the first half. Trevor Wood caught three passes for 66 yards for Chaparral. Wood, a four-star recruit, has pledged to play for Arizona next season. Justin Holt appears to be headed to the blue-chip lists his next two seasons.

  • Chaparral assistant coach Marc O’Sullivan is the son of ex-UA defensive back Joe O’Sullivan, an important player on Jim Young’s back-to-back 9-2 teams of the mid-70s. O’Sullivan’s cousin is Salpointe head baseball coach Danny Preble.

  • Oaks Christian High School quarterback Brandon Dawkins, who is RichRod’s top QB recruit in the Class of 2014, completed his California prep career last week. The 6-4 Dawkins threw for 3,383 yards and 38 touchdowns. It is a significant plus that he was coached this season by ex-Arizona, Washington and UTEP assistant coach Jeff Woodruff, who became the head coach at Oaks Christian, a SoCal powerhouse, after leaving El Paso a year ago. While in Tucson, Woodruff was the head coach at Cholla High School before joining Dick Tomey’s staff in 1998 and 1999.

  • Grant Jerrett made his professional debut on Friday, scoring five points on 1-for-9 shooting for the NBA D-League’s Tulsa 66ers. Jerrett was matched against Rio Grand Valley’s Kevin Parrom, his former UA teammate. Parrom, a sub for the Vipers, scored 11 points in 21 minutes.

  • Tucson High grad Sama Taku, the starting point guard at Pacific, is averaging 12.4 points as a senior. Taku had an off night last week at Oregon, shooting 1 for 9 afield in a loss to the Ducks.

  • Former Arizona All-Pac-12 center and 12-year NBA veteran Sean Rooks is also in the D-League this year. He is employed by the Miami Heat, who assigned him to coach the big men for the Sioux Falls Sky Force, which includes 7-footer Chris Ayers, a Flowing Wells grad. Sean’s son, 7-foot Cal freshman Kameron Rooks, is breaking in slowly in the Pac-12, averaging 6.2 minutes and 1.8 points for the Bears.

  • Former UA baseball standout Troy Gingrich has been named the hitting coordinator for the Washington Nationals. Add him to the coaching tree of ex-UA baseball coach Jerry Stitt, whose batting-instructor connection now includes Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona and Indians bench coach Brad Mills, Seattle Mariners minor league field coordinator Jack Howell, Oakland A’s bench coach Chip Hale, New York Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long and Cleveland Indians minor league hitting coordinator Alan Zinter. Impressive list.

  • Arizona men’s golf coach Jim Anderson, who recently signed what appears to be a Top 10-type class of 2014 recruiting group, is working ahead. Anderson has received a commitment from class of 2015 prep All-American golfer Tyler Moore of Escondido, Calif. Moore has already shot a career-best 10-under-par 61 in competition, and he won the 2009 World Junior championship in his age group.

  • Friday was the busiest golf day of the year at the five Tucson City Golf courses, with about 700 tee times booked, a day that probably meant about $15,000 in greens fees alone.

    But the day after Thanksgiving is traditionally golf-heavy. Seeing golfers stacked up at the Randolph golf complex on other days has become unusual.

    That’s why the city will give the financial keys to its golf operation to Scottsdale-based OB Sports Golf Management, which is expected to take charge in early January. OB Sports was selected over the other finalist, Billy Casper Golf.

    “I think we’re all interested in turning this page and seeing what changes a new management team brings to the table,” said Tucson city councilman Steve Kozachik. “With a new business model in place, our muni courses will get a different level of attention. I support the move.”

    A year ago, El Rio and Fred Enke appeared doomed. But that has changed; Tucson City Golf announced it turned a six-figure profit in the last fiscal year.

    Now the financial risk is all on OB Sports, which operates 11 mostly high-fee courses in the greater Phoenix area, and a handful in Oregon, California, Nevada and Texas.

    Those who regularly play the five Tucson courses are probably wary of the change. OB Sports will likely fix the busted air-conditioning unit at El Rio, which was an embarrassment. It will surely dress up the awful restroom conditions at Randolph, and maintain oft-neglected bunkers and chipping areas in a more professional manner.

    Those who rent antiquated carts, and drive on rutted cart paths at Fred Enke, can be encouraged that OB Sports will maintain higher standards.

    But someone’s going to pay to bring the five city courses into better condition. If that means the average muni golfer, who walks 18 holes for about $23 in the summer and $34 in the winter, will be asked to pay $6 or $7 more per round, there is apt to be significant resistance.

    But that’s OB Sports’ problem. The Randolph complex is a sleeping giant, even in a depressed golf economy, but finding more golfers, at higher prices, or even at the same price, is going to require a full-out change in marketing, reputation and execution.

    Turning on the AC, cleaning the restrooms and putting a happy face in the pro shops will be a welcome change before anyone puts a tee in the ground.

  • Over the past 13 years, Dennis Bene has helped Salpointe build a 5,000-square-foot weight room, install a $1 million turf field and average 10 victories per season.

    Along the way, Bene has developed more than a winning football team. He has created a fan base like few others in Tucson prep history. About 10,000 Salpointe fans attended Friday’s state championship game at Arizona Stadium.

    In an era when Tucson struggles to support any sport that isn’t UA football or basketball, the Lancers have shown it is possible to get off your sofa and go to the ballpark.

    Winning turns the key. Doing it with a first-class approach opens the door.

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